Wednesday, July 11, 2007

"I should've strangled you in your crib."

Much as I love and appreciate online bookstores and the glorious bargains they contain - £0.01 for just about any book, never mind an undisputed literary classic on Amazon cannot be argued with - theres just something about the experience of browsing in an actual secondhand bookshop that no website can ever hope to reproduce. Its there in the smell, that musty odour of old, slowly decaying books, finger-smudged paper and creased cover pages, shelves and shelves and piles and piles of them, the infinite possibilty and promise of it. The array of spines facing you on the walls, a series of sharp changes in colour and typeface, some pristine, many cracked and pitted through use. The nosy, snobbish, frequently overly friendly staff. London has a good selection of secondhand places, from the many Oxfam shops scattered throughout the city to the stalls under the bridge outside the NFT to the line of old shops on Charing Cross Road. Probably the one I frequent most regularly is the Notting Hill Book & comic exchange. Its not too far from work, but the key is in the name. They sell comics too, both singles, generally at a cutprice rate, and graphic novels and trade paperbacks, and they offer exchange. I used to keep any magazines I bought, but I only do that nowadays with an elite number of titles. The rest I either recycle or exchange at Notting Hill.

Browsing in any secondhand place can lead you in odd directions, give rise to strange, exciting discoveries. Mostly I buy books I've previously heard of. I'll have read a review or read something else of the authors - much of the time I buy books I actually always intended to buy, only held back and hoped that I'd find them cheap and secondhand. Its always extremely satisfying when I do. Notting Hill is good for pre-release proofs and review copies, paperback versions of the hardback releases that have been sent to critics, and I've bought my fair share of those. But part of shopping for books the old-fashioned way is that you actually have to judge a book by its cover. If you haven't heard of a book or its author, then these are all that you have as a guide. Which can be exciting and lead you to writers, books, even genres you never would have found otherwise.

About 18 months ago I found a book called "Jim" in Notting Hill. It was in the Cult section, which is usually where they keep Beat novels alongside Philip K. Dick and Elmore Leonard Westerns, 60s Spy novels and all the other stuff that doesn't really fit anywhere else. What caught my eye was that it was written by James Toback. Toback is an American movie Director and screenwriter, and I know his film work pretty well. Well enough to be interested by the fact - previously unknown to me - that he had ever written a book of any kind. Never mind one that was "The Author's Self-centred Memoir on the Great Jim Brown", as the subtitle has it. I knew Jim Brown, of course. He had gone from being one of the greatest American football players of all time to an actor in the late 60s, appearing in films like "The Dirty Dozen", "Any Given Sunday" and Toback's own "Fingers". The book was an ex-library copy from Mahattan Public Library in Kansas. It had that library look, like it had been modified to last longer, its dust jacket laminated and sellotaped to the hardcover flaps. But it was in good condition, the author and subject intrigued me, and it was £2. So I bought it. It went onto my sagging bookshelves alongside all the other books I've bought and keep buying but haven't gotten around to reading yet and the many that I have. Last week I came across a reference to Toback somewhere and it reminded me of "Jim", so I pulled it out and read it.

Its a strange mixture of essay and memoir. Toback had been an English Literature Lecturer and was working as a journalist at the time, assigned by Esquire to write a piece on Brown, and his writing is excellent, engaging and readable and equally capable of amusing anecdotes or pretentious theorising. At their first interview, he instantly becomes friends with Brown and, in the midst of a messy breakup with his first wife, goes to L.A., where he lives as Brown's houseguest for months. Its hard to appreciate from this perspective - Europe in the first decade of the 21st Century - just how big a star Brown was at that time. American Football was the most popular sport in the USA and Brown was perhaps its greatest, most famous player. So famous he was able to give the game up and start acting, with no little success. All this, and, as an extremely successful black man at a crucial time in American politics, he became a necessarily political figure. Toback explains all this lightly, entertainingly, never becoming too academic as he describes Brown's popularity and importance and his own feelings about becoming friends with such an icon. All the while he is observing, watching how Brown conducts himself in public and private, playing basketball and tennis with him, accompanying him to clubs and discos, going to his parties, sharing girls with him, meeting his friends, becoming involved in his charity work and schemes for black empowerment, arguing and advising. He is always testing himself and his ideas about race in America. He sees Brown as the epitome of the scary Black Man White America is terrified of, the handsome, intelligent Alpha Male, possibly the countrys greatest athlete, its supreme male specimen, here to steal all the white women. He wonders about his own attitude to race and masculinity - spurred by the memory of his first ever encounter with two young black boys as a child on the Upper East Side of New York - and how it has influenced his competitive personality. Jim Brown, with his kindness and charisma, disables many of his worries, puts his mind at ease through the simplicity of their relationship. By the end of the book, Toback no longer worries about his own attitude to race, but he does worry about that of America. Along the way, he has demonstrated some good storytelling skills. His description of a couple of tennis matches he plays against Brown, where they measure their positions against one another, as friends, tennis players and, most importantly, as men are funny and gripping and insightful all at the same time. This flair for storytelling would soon attract attention from Hollywood.

Toback is an interesting guy, and in fact his life is probably a lot more interesting than most of his work, which is a problem for any artist. In cinema, he peaked far too early. His first completed project was the screenplay for Karel Reisz' "The Gambler" (1974), which he and Reisz reportedly worked on for two years, honing and tightening the story until it was the spare, sleekly focused film Reisz shot. James Caan stars as Axel Feed, a literature professor with a gambling addiction that leaves him owing money to everyone he knows and fearing punishment from the mob unless he can find $45,000 in a short period. Even then, he cannot stop gambling. The film is a study in compulsive behaviour and it never lets up, allowing us to see how Axel's mind works, how his life is informed by his love of risk, and how nothing else excites him or makes him feel alive to the same extent. But Toback and Reisz never even pretend to tell us why he is this way, and the absence of such reductive psychology, together with the story's insistence that Axel will not, cannot change, are its major strengths. Caan is as good as he has ever been, Reisz shows that he is a sensitive director who didn't do enough work, and Toback's script is gripping, with well-drawn characters and some juicy, realistic dialogue. The story is obviously semi-autobiographical, with its English Lit. Professor as hero and its narrative obsession with gambling. The bio on "Jim" says that "He is now at work on a novel which involves a Harvard undergraduate's attempt to fix the Harvard-Yale basketball game." This storyline plays a vital role in the climax of "The Gambler", and Toback would return to it years later. He was on-set throughout filming, watching Reisz work, gaining an education in the physical realities of a movie shoot.

He put this education to good use when he came to make his first film as director, "Fingers" in 1978. Starring Harvey Keitel as Jimmy Fingers, a classically trained pianist who has abandoned his instrument to work as a debt collector for his mobster father, the story follows him through a few days of his life, in which the slightly disturbed Jimmy has the chance to escape his life and re-enter the life of a musician, when he is offered an audition. Except his father's world has quite a grip on Jimmy, and he finds it hard to decide which side of himself to choose. "Fingers" is filled with a strange verve, its protagonist's inability to relax, his mania, jerky nervous energy and lack of impulse-control seeming to control the narrative. Its as if his blood flows through the movies veins. Shot by Michael Chapman, its visually seductive, capturing the starkly bleak energy of New York in the 70s in a manner that many films of the era only hint at. Keitel is amazing, giving perhaps the best performance of an immense career, letting his Id loose in a way he only approaches in "Bad Lieutenant" (1992). But this character is better written than his role in that film. As in "The Gambler", this protagonist is obviously based in some way on Toback himself, and his compulsive nature leads him into some uncomfortable situations, including an encounter with Jim Brown, portraying just the sort of sexually threatening uber-masculine black male Toback had written of in "Jim". "Fingers" is also full of frank sex and violence, and its ending is very much in the minor key and unapologetically bleak : the final image of Keitel is unforgettable. It has been given some publicity in recent years by the success of Jacques Audiard's superb, perhaps superior remake, "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" (2005).

Toback has done some interesting work since, but hes never really matched "Fingers". His next film, "Love & Money" (1982) is a strange, only fitfully successful black comedy concerning a South American dictator, and "Exposed" (1983) an ambitious DePalma-esque odyssey through the world of New York fashion. Both films are chiefly memorable as vehicles for Nastassja Kinski, made by a director obviously enamoured of her (they have this in common with Paul Schrader's bizarre, beautiful "Cat People" (1982) and Jean-Jacques Beineix's "the Moon in the Gutter" (1983) - Kinski was the arthouse muse of choice for a number of directors in the 1980s). Toback's most obviously commercial film is also one of his most personal: "The Pick-Up Artist" (1987) stars Brat Packers Robert Downey Jr and Molly Ringwald, and is basically a teen comedy. But its a teen comedy through a prism - Downey Jr is the titular artist, Ringwald the mobster's daughter he falls for. Their romance starts off sweetly but becomes messy and darker as the plotting gains complexity, and the film almost sabotages itself in its later acts, when the comedy all but dries up. But its main problem is that both stars feel too young - it was originally written for a middle-aged - and more Toback-like - Leading Man, and Toback refashioned it for the younger Downey Jr, but the role is an uncomfortable fit for the actor. But it is full of little references to "Fingers", not least in the form of Keitel basically playing an older, damaged version of Jimmy, and is interesting for Toback's take on his own lothario nature. He next directed "The Big Bang" (1989), a documentary featuring Toback interviewing various people - some famous, most not - and questioning them about lifes great issues and meanings. His status in Hollywood was boosted by the success of his screenplay for "Bugsy" (1991), restating his ability as a writer. It would still be 6 years before he next directed a film, and that film, "Two Girls and a Guy" (1997) reunited him with Downey Jr, playing a spin on his pick-up artist in a stagey comedic drama about a romantic triangle. It features some great dialogue and strong performances, but feels somewhat like reduced Toback, again dealing with sex and a compulsive protagonist, but having to compromise much of what makes him so distinctive to do so, lacking the energy and verve of his earliest work.

He returned to old themes and ideas for his next two films. "Black & White" (1999) is an examination of racial tension and cultural influence, observing the interaction between the world of Upper class New York and college kids with hip-hop and featuring a distracting number of non-actors, from Mike Tyson and the Wu-Tang Clan to Claudia Schiffer, alongside the likes of Ben Stiller, Brooke Shields and Downey Jr. Its a cluttered mess of a film, stuffed with great moments and interesting ideas, but also tedious and confused and dramatically slack. One of its storylines is similar to the plot of "Harvard Man" (2001), which revisited the story suggested in the bio for "Jim", following a young Harvard basketball player (Adrian Grenier) who is persuaded to throw a game by his girlfriend, the daughter of a mobster (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Toback maintained a hip aura in Hollywood due to his personal reputation - he is a legendary Hollywood ladies man - his contacts and friends in the business, and the strength of some of his work. Leonardo DiCaprio was attached to "Harvard Man" for years, but when he dropped out, leaving it without a big star to carry it, it failed commercially. But it is probably Toback's strongest recent film, as driven and intuitive as "the Gambler" and "Fingers" in its own way. It features a brilliant acid-trip scene. Toback himself had travelled to Switzerland in 1965 to get some LSD direct from the Sanders Laboratory, inspired by Aldous Huxley and the Tibetan book of the Dead to see it as the best way to cure his pot habit. He took a mammoth dose, perhaps the largest recorded to that time (100,000 micrograms - an average hit is between 200 to 1000 micrograms) and endured an eight day trip which was ecstatic for the first nine hours or so, but ended with him suicidal, destroyed and having to receive an antidote from a specialist. The film attempts to replicate this experience with the use of heavily distorted visuals, a really effective soundtrack filled with repeating overlapping dialogue, and a shaking, wobbling camera. It is, like many of Toback's films, a male melodrama, a genre which does not often find favour with modern audiences, especially when combined with the sexual frankness and highbrow ambition always evident throughout Toback's career. But when his work is on target, it feels unique and even a little visionary.

When it is not, as in his last film "When Will I Be Loved" (2004), it seems pretentious and exploitative. Neve Campbell plays Vera, a modern femme fatale, who explores her sexuality in a series of encounters whilst simultaneously exploiting the men out to exploit her own apparent naivete. Campbell gives a brave performance, but the film is too thin to give meaning to its series of lecherous shots of her in the shower, in a lesbian liaison or having rough sex with her hustler boyfriend. It was shot in only 12 days for a $2 Million budget, and as such, it looks commendably slick. The production was also the source for most of the material in "The Outsider" (2006), Nicholas Jarecki's documentary study of Toback. Actors, friends and critics discuss his life, personality and work, and Neve Campbell seems a little bewildered by his way of working, confessing that she doesn't know exactly what shes meant to do in her next scene. Toback himself comes across as what he is - a great, larger-than-life character. Predictably, he seems as if he could have stepped out of one of his own films, which brings us back to the element of autobiography in "The Gambler" and the way he turned a study of Jim Brown into a memoir about confronting some of his own issues. He has always been more interesting than his films, but at least he has let his life inform his art - often too much, it seems - and left behind an interesting, if flawed body of work as a result.



Blogger Monsterwork said...

Weird venn-diagram overlaps. I now have to cut out the bit at the start of my next blog about the joys of going into a 2nd Hand Bookshop and getting both the one title you went in there for and one awesome sounding book you'd never heard of. Last time I went in search of The Midnight Folk, Pattern Recognition, Billy Bathgate, The Game, any Lawrence Block Matt Scudder novel and Paradise Man and was only let down on the Jerome Charyn, which I guess I'll have to Amazon if I want it before I go NYC.

And then there's the Pick-Up Artist, which is about PUAs and gets referenced in The Game along with the book on which it's based.

1:16 pm  
Blogger David N said...

So what was the awesome-sounding book you've never heard of?

I've read some Charyn - Blue Eyes - and didn't like it much.

5:31 pm  
Blogger Monsterwork said...

'The Prone Gunman' by Jean-Patrick Manchette. Haven't actually read it yet, but it sounds boss.

6:36 pm  
Blogger Beezer B said...

I'd buy that book too if I saw it in a shop.

Have you been to Hay? Thats like Titland for bookemons. I wish there was a whole village full of records on the Welsh border.... anyways I buy that kind of book when I'm there. Last time I bought a book called "What If Marx had been Japanese". I haven't read it yet.

Oh and "Black & White" is appallingly bad. I keep the DVD for the Mike Tyson bits.

12:31 am  
Blogger David N said...

Never been, would love to. I've bought some books from Amazon z-shops that are actually in Hay.

Black & White is awful. But weirdly compelling.

11:03 pm  

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